Jerusalem — It’s taken 65 years, but women’s rights are finally a mainstream issue in Israeli society.
While outsiders generally think of Israel as progressive on women’s issues — women are drafted into the military and have combat roles, after all — its excellent and long-established laws protecting women, including laws about sexual harassment and ensure workplace equality, for example, haven’t always been enforced.
That’s beginning to change, activists say, and the proof is in the headlines.
It’s now commonplace to find stories about sexual harassment in the workplace and the military; equal pay for equal work; the marginalization of women in haredi and mainstream society; and even the Women of the Wall, the group pushing for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, which, until recently, the Israeli public considered a fringe group better suited for the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
While still not a mainstream phenomenon, WOW has captured the imagination of many Israelis committed to women’s equality and freedom of religion.
In a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University in late April, a couple of weeks before thousands of haredi Jews came out in force against the Women of the Wall, 48 percent of Israeli Jews backed (and 38 percent opposed) WOW’s quest to pray out loud, wear tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) at the Kotel.
Not surprisingly, support was highest among self-defined Israeli Jews (64 percent) and the traditional-non-religious (53 percent); 26 percent of traditional-religious and 28 percent of the religious support WOW to a lesser degree, while 0 percent of the ultra-Orthodox community believes in their cause.
Told later that an Israeli court has ruled that the Women of the Wall weren’t doing anything illegal, support for the group among Israeli Jews rose to 56 percent (vs. 34 percent).
The attorney general’s sudden concern for women is another clear sign that women’s rights are becoming a national priority.
In a move that surprised even Israel’s staunchest feminists, in early May Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein asked government ministers to end discrimination against women in every sphere under their jurisdiction.
Citing a Justice Ministry report detailing the efforts of the haredi leadership to marginalize women in the public sphere, Weinstein declared that it is illegal to require women to sit separately from men on any ministry-licensed vehicle and that men and women must both enter through the front, not the back, of a bus.
Weinstein’s sweeping pronouncements extended to cemeteries, where some religious burial societies have forbidden women from delivering eulogies or reciting prayers aloud. And to the country’s HMOs, some of which have created separate sections for men and women.
The attorney general also censured a state-recognized radio station for not hiring female announcers or permitting women to be interviewed. He also told municipalities that signs (such as the ones in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah Shearim) ordering women to dress modestly and to walk on the other side of the street so as not to come in contact with men, may not be posted.
The legal system’s newfound determination to stop discrimination has also found expression in the recent court decision to allow the Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel wearing prayer shawls and tefillin.
The effect of the court ruling was immediate. When Women of the Wall and perhaps 300 supporters went to pray at the Kotel last Rosh Chodesh — where they were met with violence — hundreds of police became human shields to protect them.
For the first time, instead of arresting women in prayer shawls, the police arrested the stone throwers.
While the Women of the Wall’s decision to go ahead with Rosh Chodesh prayers despite being pelted by rocks, stones and eggs was arguably at least as much about religious freedom as women’s right’s, many women viewed it as a victory for feminism.
“We’re in the midst of a feminist revolution,” Knesset member Tamar Zandberg from the Meretz party told me as we accompanied the Women of the Wall from the Kotel plaza, where police had created a corridor for our safe passage.
The change, Zandberg said, “has occurred during the past 10 years. The fact that an ex-president,” Moshe Katsav, “went to prison for rape — that is nothing less than a revolution.”
Zandberg complimented the brave Orthodox women who, she said, “told their community, ‘We want you to listen to us about sexual violence, agunot and other important matters.’”
Galit Desheh, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, said that feminism in Israel has been around for almost a century. “It’s been here since the first pioneers arrived” in pre-state Israel. “It’s come in waves ever since.”
But Desheh acknowledged that today “something is different. If you look at how a battered woman was blamed 10 years ago, and compare it with the way the public and the authorities respond today, it’s no less than a revolution.”
This year’s national elections, in which a record 27 female Knesset members were elected, also marked a turning point, Desheh said. For the first time there was the notion of the “female vote,” and some of the female candidates tackled issues like maternity leave and discrimination during their campaigns.
“Women’s rights issues, gender perspectives were an enormous part of the campaign,” she says. “Four of the political parties that ran were headed by women.”
Desheh gave much of the credit to the women who organized the social justice protests in 2011, and to the women who refused to remain silent when the army told female soldiers they could no longer perform in front of male soldiers, and to the ones who refused to sit in the back of public buses.
“It’s a culmination of many, many years of hard work,” Desheh explained. “It’s a different era. Something is changing. If you look at the rights of women here versus America — paid maternity leave for example — we’re much better off.”